SWMRS IN NEW YORK, JANUARY 2016. PHOTOS: MICHAEL SCHWARTZ/DE FACTO INC. STYLING: DAVID CASAVANT. GROOMING: SCOTT MCMAHAN/KATE RYAN INC. PHOTO ASSISTANTS: FLETCHER ANTSIS, AMANDA YANEZ, AND MICHELLE FAWBUSH. DIGITAL TECHNICIAN: KATIE HAWTHORNE.
Weaving seamlessly between rock ‘n’ roll screams, acoustic melodies, and undeniably catchy synth-pop, SWMRS’ Max and Cole Becker, Joey Armstrong, and Seb Mueller prove they know more than just a thing or two about music on their debut LP Drive North. The quartet previously performed under the name Emily’s Army, a decidedly punk outfit, touring North America, the U.K., and Australia, all before the age of 18. But with SWMRS, they return with genre-blending songs that include everything from anthems about Miley Cyrus (“Miley”) and Harry Dean Stanton (“Harry Dean”) to paying homage to their homes in the Bay Area (the album’s titular track features repeated screams of “I hate L.A. / I hate L.A. / Drive north / Drive north”). Released today via their own label, Uncool Records, Drive North is an energetic coming of age album, but in the least trite way possible.
“We like to have fun,” Cole Becker says when we speak over the phone. “We’re teenage boys.”
Fun of various kinds runs in the veins of the four boys, who have known nothing but music for years. Cole and Joey first formed Emily’s Army at age 8, and shortly thereafter, Max joined to play bass. Joey’s father, Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day, then produced the band’s two LPs, released in 2011 and 2013. Last year, Saint Laurent Creative Director Hedi Slimane discovered the band (who had by then rebranded themselves as SWMRS) at Burgerama Music Festival in Santa Ana. Because of Cole’s bright green hair and Max, who at the time had electric blue hair, Slimane wanted to shoot them. Soon, SWMRS was creating the soundtrack to Saint Laurent’s F/W 2016 Men’s show (what became a 17-minute extension of “Harry Dean”). For Drive North, they enlisted Fidlar lead vocalist and friend Zac Carper to produce, and Oakland artist Kreayshawn even directed their latest music video. Before the release of the album, and before the band’s headling North American tour that kicks off tomorrow, we spoke with Cole over the phone.
NAMES: Max Becker (22), Cole Becker (20), Joey Armstrong (20), and Seb Mueller (20)
BASED: Oakland, California
“HARRY DEAN”: We had already done a distilled version and we were playing it live a bunch. When we found out that Saint Laurent wanted to use one of our songs, we were like, “Alright we’ve never done a 20 minute song before,” so we went and bought a bunch of 40 ounces and sat in Joey’s basement and expanded it and banged it out until we had something. I’ve seen Pretty in Pink and The Godfather and that’s how I knew [Harry Dean Stanton’s] face, but somebody sent me a video of him talking about existential philosophy, and we were all really drawn to how positive he was. When you read Camus, it’s really depressing and dark, but he had this unique outlook on life, which was very hedonistic, but at the same time wise. We were really drawn to that. It kind of describes our youth and coming of age. That’s why we loved him. Shortly after we watched every movie ever that he’s ever done. My favorite is probably Paris, Texas.
“CHEAP BEER” AND FIDLAR: We actually met him at Burgerama and that was when we talked, like, “Hey you should produce our record.” He saw us live and really liked it, so that’s where we met and what started it all. The reason “Cheep Bear” was so influential to us is because one of the last shows we played as Emily’s Army was the first time we ever played that song live. It was at Reading Festival in England and we learned the song the night before. We were really of pissed off about this record label that we were signed to, we really just wanted to start SWMRS already, but were contractually obliged to do all this stuff. So we watched his video of Fidlar playing “Cheap Beer” and that’s how they opened their set at Reading Festival. We were like “Wow, that’s amazing, that’s the kind of energy we wanted to put out there.” We had no idea we were going to become friends with Zach. It’s really serendipitous.
UNCOOL IS COOL: We had a really lame experience with the record label as Emily’s Army, so we made some money from the Saint Laurent thing and put out the record [Drive North] ourselves. Uncool Records is not really a record label; it’s what we say to legitimize the idea that we’re putting it out ourselves. We have a song called “Uncool” and it’s basically about finding your individuality, because there are a lot of bands who just try to be cool in whatever scene they are and get caught up. They forget the most important part about good music is playing songs that people can connect to. You get people focusing on their clothes and the makeup—all the tertiary things that are awesome and what make rock so glamorous—but at the end of the day “Uncool” is about making sure you’re not trapped in all of the cool elements. A lot of bands just don’t write songs; they think about how they’re going to look on stage and they’re focused on being big in L.A. and there’s no longevity in that. If you really care about music, then you want to write music that people will really care about for a long time. That way you can do only music for the rest of your life.
THE PROCESS: Max and I both write music and lyrics. We’ll be thinking about a topic or maybe a melody in our head, and all of a sudden it clicks and words will suddenly form a chorus. Then you sit down and write verses—maybe they’re more poetic or maybe they’re more melody based. We both do that with guitar, and I do it with a drum machine too. Then we take it to the band, because realistically, the value of our sound is not in being Elliott Smith. It’s being a rock band. So Joey and Seb give it the feel and we figure it out as a band. They write the parts that add the meaning to the words we’re saying. The words may mean something to us, but without the drums and the bass they don’t mean anything to anybody else.
WRITER AT HEART: Writing is my passion. Writing words and music is amazing and perfect for me because I have attention span issues. I can’t sit down to write long-form pieces, although I’d like to. I wrote for The Daily Californian [U.C. Berkeley’s student newspaper] for a semester before leaving school and it was a really good experience. I like writing a lot. Max and I both journal basically everyday—well, he’s probably more every day. I’m close to every week. A lot of times my journal, as I read back, is kind of gibberish. I just write thoughts, very stream of consciousness. So it’s really funny to read, but then I go back and find strands of thoughts that I might not have remembered and I’ll sit down with my journal and write out a whole song to that.
MY FIRST SONG… was very preachy. It was called “Global Warming With A Side of Obesity.” It was all about the epidemics facing the U.S. at that time, which, when your news is filtered to just the Time for Kids you would get in third grade, it’s pretty much an epidemic. I read that at school. At home I read Boy’s Life, because I was in Boy Scouts…I’m an Eagle Scout actually. [laughs] I did it for way too long. [For my Eagle Scout project] I built a bridge.
POLITICS VS. TRUTH: My favorite music is an extension of the truth that the writer lives in. Not all of the truth that I live in is political activism, but at one time, all of our songs were heavily influenced by that because we lived in the East Bay, which is a very activist type of place. But also, songs can function allegorically. So a lot of the songs on our album might not sound like they have a political agenda, but every piece of art, in some form or another, has a political agenda—whether it’s just to make the world a more inclusive place or to expand awareness about mental illness. It’s all between the lines on this album. I don’t think we made a directly political song because it alienates people and leaves the interpretation factor of listening to a record not in the hands of the listener. What I love about my favorite records is that you can create your own meaning of what they’re presenting to you.
ACTIVISTS: We try to be as active as possible in things like the Black Lives Matter movement. I think we’re all pretty into Bernie Sanders. We try to make our shows and music an inclusive and safe space for everyone, because I think a lot of times when you don’t overtly state that, it can become unsafe and uncomfortable for marginalized people. We don’t want anybody to feel excluded from our music because, in the end, it’s something that helps people and makes them happy. Why exclude people from that? I think that [mindset] comes from growing up in the East Bay and the Berkeley punk scene. We were pretty influenced by the “pre-hippie” ideology and free speech movement. We’ve always just known you pick your friend up if they fall down in the mosh pit. You have all-ages shows and you don’t spread hate.
A FEW FAVORITE ALBUMS: B4.DA.$ by Joey Bada$, Let It Bleed by The Rolling Stones, Bratmobile—one of their records is amazing. What else? Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth. Probably The Low End Theory by Tribe Called Quest. Also Let It Be by The Replacements.
SWMRS SECRET SOCIETY: We were in Emily’s Army and came out with an EP called Swim. Because of a weird situation with promoters, we weren’t allowed to play a string of shows that we booked. So instead of canceling them, we played them under the name Swimmers and created this secret underground network of kids who were hip to it. We could send out invites but they had to be private, so it was [done through a] private Instagram account and you could only follow if you had a fish emoji in your Instagram bio. It was very elaborate. That’s where we posted the shows because the promoter couldn’t see that we were playing them. So we were SWIMMERS for the first four or five months, but every time you google that, you get Michael Phelps or Missy Franklin. Pretty boring. [laughs] So we took out the vowels and it actually looks cooler. It looks more like a tag.
FROM EMILY’S ARMY TO SWMRS: We’ve all learned that if you’re a musician or an artist, if you want it done well and the way you’ve envisioned it, you have to ensure that you have control over it. That’s one of the huge reasons that we decided to stay independent: We wanted creative control. Art is deeply personal and if someone who has your business interests at mind tried to tamper with that, then it’s going to be adulterated. That’s not what you want when you create music. It’s definitely harder—you have to promote yourself, you have to put up your own money for things, you have to distribute your record on your own. We don’t have the luxury of just thinking about the music, which is okay because it is a business, and I think we’re all adults and we want to make sure that we can provide for our eventual families. It’s good that we have a handle on our own independent business practices. I would love to be a hedonist, but in the end I want to have kids, so I have to think about the future.